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Italian archeologists have discovered one of the world's best-preserved prehistoric villages, a "Bronze Age Pompeii" that was buried in volcanic ash near the world-famous Roman town almost 4,000 years ago.

The ancient settlement was overwhelmed by volcanic flow when Mount Vesuvius erupted around 1800 BC, smothering the village near present-day Nola in southern Italy many centuries before Pompeii suffered the same fate.

"This is by far the best-preserved prehistoric village in Italy and one of the best in the world. Everyday life in the ancient Bronze Age is preserved there," said Giuseppe Vecchio, the director of the excavation.

Mr. Vecchio discovered the village north of Vesuvius while doing routine tests to grant a company a licence to build a shopping centre and underground parking lot on the site. But the cross sections of earth revealed part of an ancient pottery kiln.

"It was a complete surprise, a really extraordinary find."

While much of the original structures, especially the wood beams of huts, was destroyed, the original forms are preserved in moulds made of volcanic ash and mud.

"For the first time we can see things about prehistoric life that we had only imagined," Mr. Vecchio said. "People didn't have time to grab their things when they fled, so we can see what they ate, how they cooked, what social life was like."

Explorations so far have revealed three huts as much as eight metres high, pots full of grain, sheep bones, a cage holding the bones of pregnant goats and hunting and cooking tools made from bones.

Archeologists expect to find more dwellings. At most sites around Europe, all that is left of Bronze Age villages are holes in the ground where huts used to stand.

At Nola, no human remains have been found like those at Pompeii, where an estimated 2,000 people were killed when an eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD buried the once-bustling commercial town under a sea of ash.

With its well-preserved shops, houses, amphitheatre and baths, Pompeii is one of Italy's top tourist sites.

Archeologists at Nola hope to complete their excavations in the next couple of months. They plan to reconstruct the village at a nearby archeological museum and possibly open the site to tourists.

"This is a prehistoric Pompeii, the Pompeii of the ancient Bronze Age," said Salvatore Nappo, an archeological consultant and Pompeii expert. "It will teach us about the period, but also shows that the area has been inhabited for thousands of years."